200+ Neuroscientists reject Human Brain Project

More than 200 scientists have published an open letter to the European Commission (EC) to demand opting out of the Human Brain Project (HBP).

In an open letter to the European Commission, they are calling on it to reconsider the technical goals and oversight of one of the world’s largest brain-mapping projects.

The European Union agreed last year to invest more than one billion Euros in the Human Brain Project (HBP), a 10-year effort involving dozens of research institutions to create a simulation using supercomputers of how the human brain works.

But according to a letter released by dissenting scientists, the project is doomed by opaque management and the pursuit of goals not widely shared by neuroscientists. “We believe the HBP is not a well-conceived or implemented project and that it is ill suited to be the centerpiece of European neuroscience,” the letter says.

Governments, including those of the United States and China, rather than neuroscientists have all launched large neuroscience projects to study the brain.

Europe’s HBP has been particularly controversial because it emphasizes large-scale mapping of the brain and computer simulations over traditional, small-scale bench research.

Signers of the letter intend to boycott 50 million Euros per year of neuroscience research grants that have been linked to the EU project.

“Why should an information technology project determine neuroscience funding?” says Zachary Mainen, a researcher at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal.

“It’s not a project that was planned by the neuroscience community. They say they are going to simulate the brain, but I don’t think anyone believes that.”

The HBP is led by Henry Markram. Markram obtained his Bachelor of Science degree from Cape Town University and his PhD from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel.

Within two years, Markram says, the HBP will release the first phase of its technology platform, which will let any scientist contribute data and run simulations. He says this will bring neuroscience up to speed with disciplines like astrophysics or climate research, where scientists use simulations all the time. “You can’t measure everything in the Universe, but you can simulate it,” he says. “You can’t measure all of the brain, either, so we are going to have to predict a lot of it.”

That focus on computer simulations is what’s generating the most withering criticism. Konrad Kording, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, calls the European project “useless and misleading” and says there is “genuine concern that the neuroscience community in Europe will be damaged by a very high-profile project that is deeply misguided.”

The problem, says Kording, who is a German citizen, is that it’s simply too soon to invest heavily in large-scale computational models of the brain. “The HBP is premature, we do not have the data needed, we do not know what we need to simulate, and we lack ways of thinking computationally about the brain. And yet, the HBP focuses on massive scale simulations that are currently not helpful,” he says.

Kording helped shape the US BRAIN Initiative, a large neuroscience program announced by President Obama last year. That initiative, which made its first awards in May is broadly focused on developing new technologies for directly measuring the activity neurons and mapping brain circuits.

In 2013, President Obama devoted an initial $100 million in taxpayer money to fund the HBP.

Source: technologyreview.com